Kristi Stokes is dedicated to upholding her faith, which she says influences “every aspect of my life.”
The Cleveland-area minister demonstrates her religious beliefs daily as the owner of Covenant Weddings, where she writes about and officiates weddings according to her Christian faith.
Now, in a landmark decision, a Cuyahoga County court has agreed to stop its attempt to force her to officiate homosexual “weddings.”
“Since a young age, I’ve dedicated my life to ministry, and today I love serving my community by officiating and writing for weddings,” Stokes said.
“My religious beliefs influence every aspect of my life, and I can’t simply put my religious identity into separate personal and professional boxes.”
“If you’re looking for someone to officiate your wedding, and you’re hoping to incorporate a cannabis theme or write prayers to celebrate an open marriage, I’m not your girl.”
Cuyahoga County agreed to a proposed court judgment that allows Stokes to operate her business consistent with her beliefs that marriage is the union between one man and one woman.
The judgment, proposed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, says the county cannot force Stokes to use her ministry and business to write vows and prayers or officiate weddings for same-sex marriages.
The agreed-upon judgment says Stokes is not subject to the law, which threatened her with fines of $1,000-$5,000 per violation, because her business is not a place of public accommodation. It concludes that Stokes and other ministers should not be forced to act contrary to their religious beliefs.
“No one should be forced to officiate ceremonies that conflict with their religious beliefs,” ADF legal counsel Johannes Widmalm-Delphonse said.
“Cuyahoga County’s law made Kristi face an impossible choice: disobey the law, defy her own faith, or ditch her business. She no longer faces that choice.”
“We commend Cuyahoga County for understanding and respecting this essential American freedom and acting quickly to ensure that Kristi and countless others need not fear punishment for merely living and speaking consistent with their conscience,” Widmalm-Delphonse said in a statement.
In her lawsuit, Stokes said she chooses which weddings to officiate and write about based on her faith.
But according to ADF, the current county law required Stokes to officiate same-sex weddings and pray over same-sex marriages, as well as write vows using incorrect or gender-neutral pronouns.
It also prohibited her from explaining on her company’s website or social media platforms that she can only provide services for traditional marriages.
“While Kristi works with and tries to convey God’s love to everyone no matter who they are, she can only celebrate weddings consistent with her beliefs,” her lawsuit stated.
“… Because Kristi offers wedding services that celebrate marriage between one biological man and one biological woman, the County says she must also provide the same services for weddings that contradict her beliefs or Kristi commits illegal ‘discrimination.’”
The original law applies to any public business that sells merchandise or amusement to the general public.
But the judgment, which must be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, says that neither Stokes nor Covenant Weddings qualify as a “place of public accommodation” because they do not have a physical storefront from which they provide good or services.
The ADF, a non-profit organization that advocates religious liberty, won similar cases last year when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit and Arizona Supreme Court ruled in favor of filmmakers and artists who brought similar challenges based on religious beliefs.
“Many different religions and countless people of goodwill believe that weddings are sacred ceremonies between one man and one woman,” ADF senior counsel Kate Anderson said.
“We all lose when bureaucrats can force citizens to participate in religious ceremonies they oppose, speak messages they disagree with and stay silent about beliefs they hold dear.”
Stokes said Northeast Ohio has many residents with diverse viewpoints.
“I’m simply asking that my county also respect me, my business, and my freedoms as an American citizen instead of forcing me to write or speak messages that contradict my beliefs,” she said.